Priyanka Chopra: The star strategist


Priyanka Chopra: The star strategist

The voice on the phone is of a woman charged with the warmth of success; its tempo rides on passion and pluck. “I want to leave behind a legacy. I believe in working very hard,” she says. “I want to be bloody good at every opportunity life offers me. Failure is not an option.” These sentences pop up at different moments in the conversation, but when stacked up in retrospect, they reveal the steel that defines Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra’s current, fulsome phase as a “global celebrity”.


It is midnight in India and mid-morning for Quantico’s FBI recruit Alex Parrish, shooting in Montreal, Canada, for the remaining episodes of the ABC TV series that will go on air in March. Just a fortnight ago, the role won her The People’s Choice Award for best actress in a new TV series in the US. She accepted the award laughing and blushing, one hand on her mouth, a blink-and-you-will-miss-it Miss World flurry followed by an I-am-the-global-superstar-from-India radiance. For the 33-year-old Hindi film star, it vindicated her career leap: from film to TV, from India to the US, from the routine conquests of a Hindi film star to risking her roots for a culturally different professional milieu. Born in Jamshedpur, stirred in Bareilly, minted in Mumbai, firing guns in Montreal, accepting a trophy in Los Angeles dressed in a Vera Wang silver and gold sequin dress, nude nails and silver stilettos.

“An award is an award, it is my encouragement as an artiste, but I am excited that I got the People’s Choice Award in another country and it is the people who actually consume my show who voted for me,” says Chopra. Her emphasis on “hard work” returns, this time more reflective. “As a child I had an acute fear of failure. Call it that or an addiction to hard work,” she says, adding that she works all the time, giving everything of herself in every assignment.

Quantico is Chopra’s current gig. But Miss India-World 2000, PC, Piggy Chops, “Daddy’s li’l girl” (as a tattoo on her wrist reads), the singer who recorded an album with American rapper Pitbull, star boxer M.C. Mary Kom’s cinematic avatar, cover girl for the current edition of Elle, US, who just last week picked up the best supporting actress trophy at the Filmfare Awards for her role as Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani, has her plate full. Breakfast, therefore, must wait.

Scripting conventional success through unconventional professional moves, defying geographical limitations and moving beyond the “Desi Girl” moniker that hung on to her after her film Dostana—hers is an enviable career arc. Unlike other Indian talent exports to the US, she is building a boundary-less brand, having come a long way from the time she entered Femina’s Miss India pageant as a 17-year-old contestant from Bareilly. “She was always focused, had the gift of the gab and an amazing voice. I remember advising her to join politics instead of cinema,” says author and journalist Sathya Saran, the former editor of Femina, recalling the time when Chopra contested for the Miss India pageant in 2000. All three winners of that year brought back global accolades—Lara Dutta became Miss Universe, Dia Mirza became Miss Asia Pacific and Chopra was crowned Miss World.

“After her win, I escorted her to Bareilly, where a homecoming had been organized by the people. Uttar Pradesh had banned beauty pageants and we had been flown on a special flight,” says Saran, recalling how consummately Chopra spoke to the people of Bareilly. Saran adds that she was disappointed when Chopra joined films.

Cracking the Hollywood code, especially if you’re an outsider, needs skilful strategy. Chopra, however, disagrees that her success is all about calculated planning. “I am a creative person. Creativity never has one language. The only way for a human being to evolve is by being creatively free,” she says, adding that she does not have an end game in mind or a big plan ticking away. “But yes, I want to leave behind a legacy.”

This refrain on building a legacy is in itself an instance of goal-oriented celebrity management. “I have never seen Priyanka as a talent I just ‘manage’, I have always seen her as a strategic partner,” says Chopra’s international manager Anjula Acharia-Bath, an expert on diversity in global popular cultures and a partner at Trinity Ventures, a venture capital firm, on email. Acharia-Bath, who co-founded the media company Desi Hits! (it folded up in 2014) and featured on Billboard’s “International Power Players” 2014 list, says she was stunned by the actor’s business acumen and creative drivewhen she first came to India to share her vision with Chopra on making her an international star.

Eventually, the two signed a deal in 2010 and Acharia-Bath got Chopra numerous high-profile assignments: The US’ National Football League (NFL), clothing brand Guess, Disney, the audio company Beats By Dre. She also introduced her to Keli Lee, executive vice-president, talent and casting, Disney ABC TV Group. In an interview last year, Lee told Mint that “we (she and Acharia-Bath) wanted to get the first Bollywood star on to TV screens in America and around the world.” She spoke of Chopra as “a certified breakout star”.

After a series of negotiations between Chopra, Lee, Acharia-Bath, legal and other clearances that took more than a year, through time zone and work culture differences, Chopra signed Quantico. Lee had reportedly sent her 25 pilot scripts. The role of FBI’s Alex Parrish’s appealed most to the actor.

“Priyanka is much like Lady Gaga, brilliantly educated, savvy and innovative and definitely my partner in crime,” says Acharia-Bath. She is of the firm opinion that Chopra understands and appreciates American pop culture.

“Brilliantly educated” is an unusual compliment for a star who never completed her college education. “After high school in the US and a brief stint in a Mumbai college, Miss India-World happened and her life took over,” says the Mumbai-based Natasha Pal. She has worked with Chopra for 10 years in various capacities; from managing her public relations to enhancing the digital strategy of Brand PC.


Digital savviness is a pet theme for Chopra. “I am a tech freak,” she says. “I love gadgets. Technology is a very important part of my life. That’s why I wanted to become an engineer, to find out how things work. The best gifts to give me are not shoes and bags but gadgets.” When a new gizmo appears on the market, Chopra has to have it: She currently has six Apple Watches, a 360 Camera, multiple iPads and a new iPad Pro, vinyl players on which she listens to Jimi Hendrix and David Guetta, and a few IO Hawks skateboards. “I glide around the river on an IO Hawk,” she says.

Celebrity careers that become profile-worthy are usually a volatile mix of glamour, inventiveness and talent. They must also be money-spinning machines. As American writer Truman Capote wrote in his profile of Marlon Brando for The New Yorker way back in 1957, “Defined practically, a movie star is any performer who can account for a box-office profit regardless of the quality of the enterprise in which he appears.” A recent report in The Economic Times cited an estimation by Duff & Phelps, a global valuation and corporate finance advisory firm, that placed Chopra’s fee at Rs.4-7 crore per endorsement, making her one of the highest-paid Bollywood female actors of 2015. Chopra’s team refuses to divulge her professional fees for films or endorsements.

Her celebrity worth must then be deduced from her multidimensional persona that makes her brand a bouquet of collaborative possibilities. She can model, sing, endorse high-end as well as mass products—from Guess in the US to Dabur Amla Hair Oil in India, and act as a Unicef goodwill ambassador to work in adolescent health. Her debut single album, In My City, featuring American rapper, won three nominations at the World Music Awards in 2012. Just last week, Purple Pebble Pictures, her production firm, announced regional film initiatives in Bhojpuri, Marathi and Punjabi as well as ventures in Hindi cinema, TV, new-age digital content and ad films.

Chopra’s star presence is also fuelled by her style, which has finally moved into a definitive groove. She was Salvatore Ferragamo’s first choice among Indian film stars to be honoured with a bespoke, gem-studded Ferragamo shoe in 2009, but she never really staked her claim as a fashion icon. The magazine Grazia India’s fashion director Ekta Rajani, who has styled Chopra for numerous magazine covers and appearances, says: “Priyanka’s game has grown. She is now peaking with her sense of style.

“Initially there were a lot of hits and misses but her style has evolved to be hip, urban and slightly edgy, with a rock ‘n’ roll influence,” says Rajani. Think leather-trimmed hugging jackets, cleavage-revealing goth dresses, form-fitting silhouettes, pointy pumps, pouty lips, bangs, slick ponytails, and black eye make-up with heavy lashes. “She owns her sexuality, there is a music vibe to her dressing. She is not girlie, vintage, coy or feminine”.


And while Team Chopra is reluctant to confirm if she has indeed been signed for Baywatch the film, it’s evident that her bikini act in Dostana and its sexier interpretation in her 2013 music video, Exotic, with American rapper Pitbull has added “exotic”—a hot-selling descriptor in the West—to her résumé.

Chopra’s own version of glamour is more pointed. “Being glamorous is being the best version of yourself,” she says. “It’s a mistake when women think adding a lot of jewellery and make-up makes them glamorous.”

Chopra’s current celebrity heft is not the only reason why film directors like her. Director Prakash Jha emphasizes this while discussing Jai Gangaajal, slated for release in early March. “I have a reputation of working with stars who can act. Priyanka has acquired a persona, she can get under the skin of a character, bringing a uniqueness to her roles,” says Jha. Chopra plays Abha Mathur, a police officer, in the film. “I never direct my actors too much, but I talk to them a lot, giving them physical and psychological information on the roles they play,” says Jha, explaining that he worked on the internal challenges and undercurrents of Chopra’s role with her. “Priyanka was a revelation. She understands the economy of acting. She works intuitively on the character formation in her mind, she feels the moment,” he adds.

Even those who are not fans agree that Chopra is a versatile actor. Be it a self-serving, “sexually harassing” rich wife in Aitraaz, the saucy and wicked protagonist in 7 Khoon Maaf, the gritty Manipuri star boxer, other feisty characters in Kaminey and Dil Dhadakne Do or Kashibai in Bajirao Mastani, the characters she played have kept her in the big league. Anurag Basu’s Barfi!, in which she has played Jhilmil, an autistic yet sensitive girl, underlined the fact that she was a bankable star who could act.

“I rely on my team and it’s incredible having their support all these years, but I respond to opportunities instinctively,” says Chopra, on her choice of roles and assignments. “You have to believe a hundred per cent in what you do but instinct can go right or wrong in the end,” she says.

Pal says Chopra’s instinct reflects her “creative pulse”. “Once a decision is taken in her mind, the team steps in to weigh in all the details. Priyanka is a thorough professional and every commitment she makes is treated with the same seriousness to ensure that she can deliver as promised,” she says.

Chopra’s army background (her father, the late Ashok Chopra, was a doctor in the Indian Army), would have contributed to a certain work ethic. Saran adds that “Priyanka kept herself untouched by scandal for the longest time”. The naming of a road leading to her house in Mumbai as Lt Col Ashok Chopra Marg in 2014 raised questions that her celebrity status had influenced the decision. She managed to duck the protests in the print and social media.

Social media is, in fact, Chopra’s ally, and she uses it adroitly. She has 4.8 million followers on Instagram and more than 12.4 million on Twitter. “I am honest. I don’t plan what to say and I don’t bastardize the digital components of social media,” she insists. She tweets avidly and Instagrams bits and pieces of her life—photographs with her co-stars, her mother and brother, making faces, wishing friends, putting her world view out there. Her Instagram feed is curated to have her followers believe that she may be flying high, but that at heart she is a no-nonsense feminist. One quote she posted there reads: “Treat your daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings.”

This very Instagram account also reveals a more vulnerable, wistful side. “Her heart was a secret garden and the walls were very high,” she posted once. And at another time, “Sing me no songs of daylight, for the sun is the enemy of lovers, sing instead of shadows and darkness. And memories of midnight”, quoting the Greek poet Sappho.

So what’s “Daddy’s li’l girl” really like? Someone vulnerable needing nurture or someone who becomes a protector herself? “A little bit of both,” she says, taking her “all-is-good” guard off for a moment. Prodded upon her inner life, she admits she doesn’t like silences, and that she loves to be surrounded by “hundreds of friends and family all the time”.

Whether Chopra will be able to script the saga of celebrity strategy into a best-selling memoir will depend to a large extent on how she hones her multiple talents, rather than going with a finger-in-many-pies game plan. “I am not exhausted with any aspect of my life. I love being in front of the camera, before an audience. But yes, between music and acting, I think I am driven more towards acting at the moment,” she concedes.